‘He had the power of the pen and he used it well’
Filmmaker, musician, surfer and former arts and entertainment writer for the News-Press and Santa Barbara Independent Russ Spencer died last weekend. He was 58.
Mr. Spencer, referred to by a friend as “the unofficial mayor of the 805,” is remembered as a passionate filmmaker, talented writer and a leader for his support of other creative artists.
“He was always very community-based and creative in his own way,” said Josef Woodard, News-Press contributor who was a colleague of Mr. Spencer in the 1980s and 1990s. “I think he was that way until the very end.”
Mr. Woodard said it felt as if he and Mr. Spencer were on a “parallel track” in a sense, in that they both started writing around the same time and wrote for similar publications.
“He was just always so open to anything and wanting to be in the thick of wherever there was some creative energy or excitement in Santa Barbara or beyond,” Mr. Woodard said. “It’s like that sort of magnetized him to find the theme and then nurture that theme – which he did. He had the power of the pen and he used it well.
“He was just a spark plug, a go-getter and a nice guy.”
Jeff Gordinier, who took over for Mr. Spencer at the News-Press before moving on to Entertainment Weekly, the New York Times and now Esquire Magazine, wrote a touching tribute on Facebook.
“Russ had preceded me in the job, and Russ was a star, the supremo, the unofficial mayor of the 805,” Mr. Gordinier wrote. “I was the interloper. Because of this, Russ & I warily pretended to be rivals for about two weeks, after which we became close friends for a quarter of a century. We talked & emailed often over the years, sharing poems & songs, supporting each other through the rough patches, toasting our occasional breakthroughs.”
John Graham wrote that he would remember Mr. Spencer for his “Martin Short smile” and the films he made.
“Like all of us artists, when we go we leave behind our work. That is life everlasting for us,” Mr. Graham wrote.
Mr. Spencer started his own film company, Bison Films, which produced documentary films and promotional videos. His work included short films on the local arts community, spotlights on local homes and interviews with bands and entertainers.
He was well known for a short film titled “A Man’s Place,” which highlighted a father-son barbershop, and a short film highlighting the pianos placed along the State Street corridor each fall.
“That’s the kind of thing that Russ would really gravitate towards,” Mr. Woodard said.
Mr. Spencer’s band, called “Frank Jaegers,” is described as “punk and pop” similar to the band “The Replacements.”
Mr. Spencer is remembered as a key figure of the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, helping program short films at the annual festival for a time.
Ted Mills, News-Press contributor and filmmaker, told the News-Press Mr. Spencer was always encouraging – both to him and all other filmmakers.
“He was a good curator and I think he was truly … supportive of the Santa Barbara filmmaker group, which is barely even a group, you know?” Mr. Mills said. “It’s not a scene or anything, but he recognized it.”
Mr. Mills recalled a party the two attended, where Mr. Spencer kept asking him what he was working on while encouraging him to keep making films.
“He was very, very supportive and wanted you to be creating all the time,” Mr. Mills recalled. “And I’m sure he did that to everyone else, but to hear it from him was nice.”
Mr. Spencer was the victim of a fatal hit-and-run collision reported March 23 on Highway 101 near Olive Mill Road. The circumstances remain under investigation.
“He’s one of those guys where you hear about him passing and you can’t believe it because it he was such this whirlwind of energy and warmth and support,” Mr. Woodard said. “You just can’t imagine him not around.”